There is no sleep for the boy who will be ten. There is only darkness and waiting in the darkness and listening to the sounds that an old house makes as it cools and settles and yields itself to a night that is but one in hundreds of thousands, for the house has stood in one form or another since before the war between the states. But the boy knows nothing of this, nor does he know that it too will soon mark a milestone in its own life. One hundred years the house has stood, and as Jacob rises and passes through, it is not silent, despite his efforts to map out the weak floorboards and all the creaks, the house seems to rise itself, to awake to his passing, and its wooden voice greets him on the stairs and in the hall and on the threshold where he stands before the bible room door.
Twelve boxes. Twelve snakes. Jacob can see them there in the dark through the screen door; which is secured by the hook-latch he cannot reach Ė a vestige of caution from when he was smaller and more likely to wander into places he didnít belong. Places he was forbidden to go. Places, his Daddy said, where he might die. Will he die at the tree? Not by the tree. The tree wonít kill him but will it protect him? Will Jesus? Will the Holy Ghost? All the Holiness people say so. They say he glows with the aura of divine protection, and the miracle that is the Spirit of the Lord that covers his body like a second skin and flows through his veins in the blood of his heart . If they only knew that he cried at night. If they only knew that on those nights, when he dreams of the tree, he cries out for his Momma and wets his bed. Not on this night. Never again. Ten is a magic number, for God gave us ten fingers to count with and ten toes to run and ten years to grow into our own. The old woman says, if you can live to ten you can live to a hundred because by ten everything you need to know youíve already learned. How to wonder, how to fall, how to rise again. How to laugh and how to cry and how to find joy in the small things that donít seem to matter to the grown up world of women and men, You find your true spirit by searching for it, by asking for it, by wanting it. Now is the time to test his spirit, to test his faith. Now is the moment to see if what they say is true. If what they say is what he is then the snake will not harm him.
Heíd take all the serpents with him if he could carry them, though heís never even touched one, never handled a snake in all his life because his Daddy says heís not ready, that heís not strong enough in his spirit or belief. Heís still too young, he says, and though he knows the bible better than most grown men, and seems to understand the deeper meanings behind the words, he lacks the maturity required to invoke the powers they promise. But his Daddy is wrong and tomorrow he will know, they all will. If what the old woman says is true he has nothing to fear but the fear. A man must fend.
Twelve boxes. There they sit. Itís not late yet but theyíre all in bed and the house is quiet. The serpents know heís come for them. They hear the foot-stool as he drops it at the door, making much more noise than he planned. The snakes stir. Before he even raises the hook-latch, before he sneaks in and just before he flicks on the flashlight they already know which one he comes to take, for they all move in their boxes except the one. Jacob hears them rattle and scratch. Heavy serpent bodies. Thump, thump, thump. The hollow clunk of snake flesh on wood. He removes each box from the pile and stacks them again beside the bottom crate where Lazarus lies quiet as the dead.
The box is constructed from what his Daddy calls a tropical hardwood. Mahogany. Itís heavy and hard to lift, hard to hold, and the serpent is playing possum now; which is a comfort at that moment when he must prop the box on his knee in order to pull open the screen door to leave the bible room.
In the parlor where the floorboards creak beneath him, despite his caution, despite his plans, he is lees than silent as he passes before the staircase. The floor moans loud and he turns to see a beam of light at the bottom of the bedroom door where his parents are not yet asleep. He moves to the hall where the door latch clacks and the hinges squeal and finally out onto the porch where he stumbles and almost drops the box. Heís breathing heavy. The sky is clear and the moon is as bright as it was in his dream, so that when he steps out into the yard he casts a long black shadow that Charles Flint sees from the window above the porch. He steps back so the boy wonít notice him, and the boy does not. Jacob does not look back. Charles watches from behind a curtain. It is the last time he will see him as a boy. He will come back something different. Young still, but not a child
On the rise below the house the old woman waits in her shawl with her pipe lit and the warm bowl in her hand, the same tiny hand that held the serpent up to Jacobís mouth when he was but two days old. Ninety odd summers now Gertie Bates has stood silent witness to the endless flow of celestial bodies above this place on earth, nights filled with passing suns en route to some flaming death in some nameless future where all this means no more than a single flake of snow that fell here a thousand years before she was born. She raises the pipe to her lips and puffs on it. She stares up at the house and sees a shadow move
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